Arson and acid: the darker side of the Oxford Suffragette movement

Arson and acid: the darker side of the Oxford suffragette movement

Remarkable scenes were witnessed on the streets of Oxford on 21 June 1912, when a political rally descended into what the Oxford Times described as ‘general pandemonium’. A crowd of around 2,000 people had amassed at the Martyr’s Memorial and a carnival atmosphere reminiscent of St Giles’ Fair soon developed. The first hint of trouble came from St John’s College, as students tried to pelt the speakers with lumps of sugar, before playing loud gramophone music to try to drown the proceedings. An attempt was then made by the pipe-smokers in the crowd to smoke out those on the platform. When the odour failed to deter them, raucous singing broke out, the stage was stormed and a number of flags were destroyed. Women and children were badly jostled in the ensuing melee, some of the speakers were forced to flee in cabs, and it took a concerted effort by university proctors, police and members of the public to try to restore order.

This may sound like an unusual public disturbance, but, as those who have seen the recent movie Suffragette will know, it was the kind of dramatic scene that gripped many parts of the country just over a century ago, at the height of the protracted struggle for the enfranchisement of women. What is perhaps less well known is the important role that key individuals connected with Oxford played in both sides of the debate.

A middle class movement

In the film, the story revolves around the life of Maud Watts (played by Carey Mulligan), a laundry worker, who finds herself drawn into the turbulent world of revolutionary activism, but nationally, many of the leading figures of the movement were middle class (although wider support for the cause was sought). This was certainly the case in Oxford, where female family members of prominent academics, many of whom moved in the same circles, were already playing an indispensable role in social welfare.

Yet rather than representing one united group, those advancing the cause of women’s suffrage came from a wide range of organisations and groups, each with their own agendas. One example was the Association for Promoting the Higher Education of Women in Oxford, which primarily campaigned for female inclusion within the university system and some of whose members helped to found the Oxford Girls’ High School in 1873. The most influential local group was undoubtedly the Oxford Women’s Suffrage Society (OWSS), which was founded in 1904 and had over 400 members by 1912.


There were many prominent women connected with the cause, including trailblazers like Eleanor Smith (1823-1896), the first female member of Oxford’s School Board, who paved the way for greater involvement for women in public life. One of the most significant in the local suffrage movement was Jessie Payne Margoliouth (1856-1933), chairman of the OWSS, whose energy and dynamism was an important driving force for the organisation.

Another notable member was Maude Royden, an alumna of Lady Margaret Hall – women could not officially graduate from the university until 1920 – who went on to work for the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, a role which included writing a range of articles on women’s suffrage, as Editor of their journal Common Cause. Emily Davison, the famous activist who was killed by King’s George V’s horse at the Epsom races, had been a student at St Hugh’s College, whilst Grace Hadow, former Principal of St Anne’s College and Vice-chairman of the Women’s Institute, played an important role in coordinating women’s involvement in the subsequent war effort.

Throughout the county there were many other prominent women involved. In Witney the suffragists had a powerful ally in Mrs C. W. Early, the wife of the town’s main employer, the Liberal Methodist owner of the blanket factory.

Notable men also played their part and those connected with the university were particularly influential. Two key individuals were Mark Pattison, Rector of Lincoln College, who hosted a number of early meetings to discuss women’s suffrage, and Thorold Rogers, Professor of Political Economy, MP for Southampton and President of the Oxford Liberal Association. A number of leading local businessmen and politicians also played their part, including the MP Philip Morrell (of the brewing family), and local councillor James Salter (of the boating family), both of whom served as Vice Presidents of the OWSS.

The ‘antis’

Looking at the situation a century on, it is easy to assume that it was a foregone conclusion that women would eventually get the vote, but the pro-suffrage movement faced considerable opposition and not just from men. Although some changed their minds over the issue, there were many prominent women who remained stalwarts of ‘anti’ campaign. These included notable pioneers, like Lucy Soulsby, former headmistress of the Oxford Girls’ High School, Elizabeth Wordsworth, the first Principal of Lady Margaret Hall and founder of St Hugh’s College, and Sophia Merivale, the first female Oxford city councillor. Another influential voice was the writer Mary Ward (Mrs Humphry Ward) of Bradmore Road, the niece of the poet Matthew Arnold, who was the founding president of the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League and who wrote the Anti-Suffrage Review. The arguments that were put forward included appealing to the ‘separate spheres’ of the sexes, and claiming not only that women were unsuited to involvement with affairs of the state, but that they were already represented in politics by their male family members anyway. Some simply asserted that they didn’t want the vote, whilst many had serious reservations about the more radical elements within the suffrage movement.

Growing tensions

Tensions started to surface at the end of the Edwardian period, as pro-suffrage organisations became increasingly active. Although some moderate reforms for women had already been achieved over the preceding decades, an increasingly vocal minority were frustrated at the slow pace of change and decided that a more radical programme of action was needed in order to force the authorities to act. The most influential militant group was the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). This had split from the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), and sought publicity by a range of controversial measures, including hunger strikes, smashing shop windows and even vandalising valuable artwork. Indeed, it was their high profile campaign that really galvanised the debate and by 1912 ‘The Woman Suffrage Question’ was being hotly debated with publications like the Oxford Times running regular columns discussing the issue.

Yet it was not until that summer that events took a more sinister turn. The WSPU demonstration at the Martyrs Memorial, which had featured Dorothy Pethick and Sylvia Pankhurst as speakers, was followed by an audacious – yet unsuccessful – attempt to burn down Nuneham House, the home of Colonial Secretary and notable anti-suffragist, Lewis Harcourt, MP. Helen Craggs was subsequently convicted of the attack, which had involved using two boats from the Oxford boat-firm of Salters’ for reconnaissance. This was a sign of things to come, as the WSPU then made arson an official tactic in what Christabel Pankhurst described as a ‘holy war’.

From vandalism to arson

The campaign started in Oxford in 1913 with the vandalism of pillar boxes (causing the destruction of letters), but it soon escalated to bigger targets. After acid was poured on the North Oxford Cricket and Bowling Club green, there were successful arson attacks on Rough’s boatyard at Long Bridges and a timber yard on Marlborough Road, belonging to Basson, Richards and Company. It is not clear why these sites were chosen, although both were relatively easy targets. Frederick Rough, the leading racing-boat-builder at the time, may well have been targeted to undermine the college rowing scene, as it was generally hostile to women’s involvement. Indeed, there had been a threat to disrupt the races that year, although a variety of other places were warned to expect attack, including Blenheim Palace.

Although the agitation was overshadowed somewhat by the campaign for Irish Home Rule, it inevitably provoked a strong reaction. Many pro-suffrage groups were quick to distance themselves from the WSPU, although this didn’t prevent them from being tarred by the same brush. When the NUWSS paraded through Oxford that summer, its members held up placards to reiterate that they were ‘law abiding’. The OWSS even raised money in support of those affected by the fire at Rough’s, although this didn’t prevent its office in Holywell Street being ransacked by undergraduates, presumably because it had been mistaken for that of the WSPU.

Although the movement may have succeeded in articulating a strong moral case for women’s suffrage – not to mention overturning certain gender stereotypes – the WSPU also undoubtedly strengthened the resolve of many of its opponents. Many were genuinely outraged and repulsed by the extreme tactics and civil disobedience of the suffragettes, although the harsh treatment they received in return, such as the forced-feeding of hunger strikers, also gained them some sympathy. Indeed, although results were mixed, it was not uncommon for the ‘antis’ to win formal debates over the topic at this time.

A lasting legacy

As the movie depicts so well, the story of the struggle for women’s suffrage touched the lives of many different individuals from all walks of life. Despite their combined efforts, ultimately it took the contribution of women during the First World War finally to remove the argument against female enfranchisement, although even then the vote was only given to those aged 30 or over. Nevertheless, it is still important that we remember the important groundwork laid by many local men and women in bringing about this important reform.

As for Rough’s (rebuilt) yard, it is perhaps fitting that it became the boathouse of (amongst others) one of the women’s colleges, St Hilda’s.

(This article first appeared in the January 2016 edition of Limited Edition, the magazine of the Oxford Times)

Further reading:

  • One of the best short summaries of the movement is Harold Smith’s The British Women’s Suffrage Campaign 1866-1928
  • A longer academic book is June Purvis’ Women’s History: Britain, 1850-1945
  • You can read more about the Oxford scene in Katherine Bradley’s PhD thesis on the Oxford Suffrage and Anti-Suffrage Movements (Oxford Brookes University, 1997)